While Judge Bill Gibron can definitely appreciate Pennsylvania Dutch cooking and Amish folk arts, he couldn't quite get a handle on this heavy handed faith-based clash of cultures film.
Happiness Comes When You Least Expect It.
Though she believes it's just a bit of writer's block, columnist Sarah Cain (Lisa Pepper) is having some substantial career problems. Her editor (Elliott Gould, M*A*S*H) has been regularly pulling her copy, and it seems like her byline will be going to a bimbo celebrity reporter. To make matters worse, her boyfriend Bryan (Tom Tate) feels locked out of their relationship. During one particularly bad day, Sarah gets some devastating news—her sister has recently died, leaving behind five parentless kids. The family asks that she come to Pennsylvania for the services. Sarah has never forgiven her sister for leaving, or joining the Amish community. Now, she is faced with raising the religiously oriented kids when the State names her legal guardian. The question then becomes: Does she stay and rear the kids under the strict rules of their faith, or take them back to big-city Portland, Oregon? The decision will lead to deceptions, a renewed creative muse, some cultural clashes, and the eventual Saving Sarah Cain.
Starting out superficial and ending up overly sentimental, Saving Sarah Cain is the oddest pro-religion motion picture ever made. Certainly it gets its "God is Good" graces in, and none of the material here flies in the face of wholesomeness or piety. But when dealing with an unusual brand of belief like the Amish faith, and its arcane system of self-sacrifice, something more than a bunch of belching urchins is needed to sell the sanctity. Michael Landon Jr., son of the famed TV icon, does a journeyman job of directing the story, hitting all the clichéd cobblestones along the way. When we meet Sarah, we just know she's one epiphany away from recapturing her lost conviction. Similarly, selfish boyfriend Bryan is going to forget about himself and have the change of heart the last-act catalyst mandates. Even though they get a taste of contemporary living, the children will yearn for the simplicity of their Plain ways, never once giving into the temptations of popularity, pride, or physical education. In fact, it's clear that Beverly Lewis' novel (which was altered ever so slightly for the film) is all about the melodramatic and the soap opera-ish. The Anabaptist Christianity is just a splash of local color.
Don't come looking for insights, however. Saving Sarah Cain isn't out to explain or exploit the Pennsylvania Dutch. Instead, it's the link to the Lord that's the most important thing about Lyddie, Anna Mae, Caleb, Josiah, and Hannah. They are walking vulgates, adolescent reminders that devotion and family are far more important—at least to our title character—than job, career competitiveness, and multiple paper syndication. It is clear Ms. Cain has misplaced priorities. She lives in one of those unrealistic spaces that screams "high-end set design." Her condo is so post-modern that futurists faint at the sight of her split-level space. She's a queen of technology, a cell-phone wielding, laptop tapping, type-A plot device, a human wreck waiting for a little WWJD TLC to get her perplexed priorities good and straight. As with most cinematic salves, the sudden injection of children is Heaven's best healer. It's a shame that more isn't done with the kids. They come across as genuine and multifaceted without the fake permutations of their aunt. But since Saving Sarah Cain is all about the surface, nothing goes deeper or more dimensional.
As for the acting, Lisa Pepper is nothing special. She's Kristin Bell without three seasons of Veronica Mars and a couple of J-Horror films to support her stature. Her main performance attribute is the pointed pout, and she is quite capable of weeping like a willow when called upon. She is matched bland note for note by Abigail Mason as Lyddie. Looking at least a decade older that her character's 16 years (she was, oddly enough, only 18 at the time) and essaying her role with deer-in-the-headlights expressions, she never met a gesture she couldn't underplay completely. Even the last-act denouement involving a letter she secretly hid holds no emotional weight. While a couple of the wee ones manage to make us care (Tanner Maguire's Josiah is probably the best), everything else is routine. Even Elliott Gould and a blink-and-you'll-miss-her Tess Harper are hamstrung by the script's unsophisticated outlooks. Had Landon and his producing pal Brian Bird strived to break free of the strident Jesus jonesing, had they allowed their characters to act like human beings instead of physiological parables, Saving Sarah Cain might have worked. As it stands, it's a dull, underdeveloped drone.
Offered by Fox Faith in an unusual 1.78:1 digital-to-film transfer, this movie looks a mite strange. There is lots of ghosting during the opening office moments, the movements of characters leaving little DAT vapor trails during blocking. Once we get to the outdoor material (shot in real Amish country, though Utah subbed for the interior scenes), the image is much, much better. Perhaps it's because the eye gets used to it, but after a while, the picture problems no longer seem to matter. As for sound, a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix offers very little immersion. When the whiny indie rock ballads enter into the foreground, the speakers come alive. Beyond that, the dialogue is easily discernible and upfront. In more intriguing news, the DVD actually has some significant supplements. There is a basic behind-the-scenes making-of which gives Landon, Bird, and the rest a chance to discuss their work. It is very revelatory (both men were "desperate" to make a movie about the Amish). There's also a collection of deleted scenes which flesh out the characters, and a collection of Fox Faith trailers. While not overwhelming in the added content department, these extras really add to the movie overall.
It's just too bad that it would take an effort of Atlas-like proportions to raise this story from the nadir of normalcy. Redemption is a standard cinematic theme. Audiences just love to see the misguided pointed in the right direction. Saving Sarah Cain has the roadmap all laid out. Too bad it's the same old path to the same old predictable ends. Guilty.
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